James: Ranking my top five favorite road venues from covering Notre Dame football

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Sports writers are selfish.

Catch us in press boxes before games and you’ll hear us complaining about the free food or parking location that was provided for us. You might even see us tweet those complaints from time to time. I’m as guilty as anyone.

As I’m cooped up in my apartment wondering how we navigate this coronavirus pandemic with the college football season intact, my selfish tendencies are returning.

I want to go to Dublin, Ireland for Notre Dame-Navy in August. I want to make my first trip to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field to cover Notre Dame-Wisconsin. Heck, I’d even settle for a return trip to Heinz Field for Notre Dame-Pittsburgh.

The football can wait. There are certainly more pressing issues at hand in our country. But here’s hoping everything works out and the sport so many of us love can offer us an escape.

Road trips might be the best perk of the sports writing gig. We get to travel to places we’ve never been before and get paid to do so. In my eight years working at The Tribune, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a lot of special places covering Notre Dame football.

But some places are more special than others. These are my five favorite road venues I’ve had the pleasure of visiting:

1. Georgia

Notre Dame takes on Georgia in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

Everything about Notre Dame’s trip to Athens, Ga., surpassed the high expectations that came with the Irish debut in Sanford Stadium last September. Well, everything but the traffic.

Local beat writers urged us to allow for plenty of extra time on our drive from Atlanta to Athens. The traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as warned, so we ended up in the press box more than four hours ahead of kickoff. But there were plenty of pregame festivities to enjoy as we waited.

The Georgia fans had more chants and songs than a sorority during rush. They were “Calling the Dawgs” and Ric Flair was eliciting shouts of “Woo!” One song, which repeats “Glory, glory to old Georgia!” to the recognizable tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ended with the crowd singing “to hell with Notre Dame!”

The game didn’t need many bells and whistles, but Georgia provided plenty. The stadium unveiled special lighting that could flash and turn red during breaks. Everything combined to provide an electric backdrop for an entertaining football game.

The crowd never seemed to crescendo. Every ensuing big moment drew louder noises. It was a party that wasn’t complete until Ian Book’s final pass to Chase Claypool in the final minute landed incomplete. And the afterparty lingered for quite some time as the Bulldogs left the field following a 23-17 victory.

Late kickoffs lead to really late nights for beat writers, but the energy from Sanford Stadium — with the help of The Black Keys playing in the rental car — powered me through a drive back to the Atlanta airport hotel at 3 a.m.

2. Clemson

Somehow the torrential rains of Hurricane Joaquin didn’t drown out the atmosphere in Clemson’s Memorial Stadium in 2015. The pregame sound tests should have been a proper warning. They were the loudest I’ve ever heard.

I expected Clemson’s tradition of touching Howard’s Rock before running down the hill onto the field to be the highlight of the pregame ceremony. Instead, a highlight video that featured the sounds of a ticking clock, movie trailer bass and Lauryn Hill’s voice hauntingly singing, “Ready or not, here I come. You can’t hide. Gonna find you,” brought on goosebumps.

If the soggy crowd needed any inspiration, Clemson delivered some by scoring on its opening drive. But the Tigers and Deshaun Watson weren’t able to completely run away from the Irish. DeShone Kizer led Notre Dame to a comeback effort that fell short when he was stuffed near the goal-line on a two-point conversion attempt.

With a 24-22 victory all but secured with seven seconds remaining, Clemson fans erupted. Then they stormed the field after time expired.

Finding a way back to our car after the game was an adventure. Eric Hansen started flagging down workers and offering payment to help us find our way back. Fortunately one eventually offered us a ride. Apparently everyone else in Clemson, S.C., had already rushed home to find dry towels.

3. Florida State

Somehow I positioned myself in the right place at the right time. I happened to choose a spot behind the end zone in Doak Campbell Stadium where Corey Robinson caught what could have been the game-winning touchdown catch to beat Florida State in 2014. I recorded the play, which was negated by a controversial pass interference call, on my phone, which caught me saying “Wow!” at the end of the recording.

The next play, Everett Golson threw an interception in the end zone for a disappointing Irish ending in Tallahassee, Fla. Notre Dame was this close to defeating the defending national champs on their home field.

That didn’t take away from the experience of the game. Watching Osceala, a symbolic Seminole warrior, ride Renegade, a horse, onto the field was a bit surreal. And it sure beats USC’s version with a Trojan riding Traveler.

While Florida State’s War Chant may be problematic, it was neat to watch and listen to all of the Seminoles fans chanting in unison. Another goosebump-inducing moment.

Oct 18, 2014; Tallahassee, FL, USA; A general view of Doak Campbell Stadium before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

4. Oklahoma

South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER Sooner fans wave towels before the start of a game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in Norman, Okla. via FTP

Oklahoma loves America. That much was clear during the pregame festivities in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in 2012.

The Sooners unfurled an American flag that nearly covered the entire field for the national anthem before the game in Norman, Okla. The flag paired with a stadium crowd striped with sections wearing crimson and white made for quite the spectacle. The Sooners capped it off with some fireworks.

The atmosphere in the stadium felt a bit like what Notre Dame Stadium has come closer to achieving in recent years. There was contemporary music playing before the game, but there was still a nostalgic feel. Even the pregame video highlights called on its program’s history.

A Boomer Sooner chant echoed throughout the stadium before the game. The Sooner Schooner wagon rolled onto the field with it's two white ponies leading the way. Then Notre Dame ran away from Oklahoma in a 30-13 victory with a lopsided fourth quarter that quieted the home crowd.

5. Michigan

The Michigan Marching Band performs before the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. via FTP

This is the only stadium to make the list that I’ve covered a game in more than once. Unfortunately for Irish fans, my trips to Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2013 and 2019 both resulted in Notre Dame losses.

But it’s the atmosphere in Michigan Stadium from 2013 that earned it this spot on the list. On that September night, Michigan Stadium set an attendance record with a crowd of 115,109.

Most Notre Dame fans know by now that the Big House is more like a big hole, so it’s stadium doesn’t tower over campus. But it’s big and round, and all the Michigan fans packed into the giant bowl that night provided plenty of noise.

After Michigan won 41-30, the stadium played the “Chicken Dance” song in reference to head coach Brady Hoke accusing Notre Dame of chickening out of the rivalry. It provided a good laugh for the Wolverines that night, but it wasn’t quite as funny a year later when the Irish delivered a 31-0 beatdown in Notre Dame Stadium.

But kudos to Michigan for adding another spark to the rivalry. College football stadiums should encourage some good-natured ribbing.

Notre Dame’s trip to Clemson’s Memorial Stadium in 2015 was a soggy but memorable one.